When Jewish kids were trailblazers in the Boy Scouts

Why is the Boy Scouts of America, whose motto is “Be Prepared,” not yet ready to admit gays fully into the Scouting community? In the 1960s, they were more than prepared to admit me. Though not gay, I am Jewish, and back then I represented a group that also called for some attitude adjustment by the Scouting organization.

From ages 11 to 18, in my suburban Scout Troop 75 in Southern California, I went to meetings once a week and on camping trips several times a year, finally earning the rank of Eagle in my senior year of high school.

Today, as an alumnus who has pleasant memories of a movement that taught me that boys from many different households and lifestyles could be friends, I was puzzled about why Scouting was resisting change.

According to the New York Times, the Boys Scouts of America last summer confirmed its policy of banning openly gay men and boys from participation. “While the BSA does not proactively inquire about the sexual orientation of employees, volunteers, or members,” the group’s website says, “we do not grant membership to individuals who are open or avowed homosexuals or who engage in behavior that would become a distraction to the mission of the BSA.”

This April, however, it was announced that the organization will consider changing its policy at its annual meeting on May 24 — but only in terms of admitting gay boys. The group will not consider resolutions aimed at opening the doors to gay Scout leaders.

The announcement created “an outpouring of feedback from the Scouting family and the American public, from both those who agree with the current policy and those who support a change,” the site says. “This feedback reinforced how deeply people care about Scouting and how passionate they are about the organization.”

Even President Obama weighed in, saying in a CBS interview in February that the ban should end. “My attitude is that gays and lesbians should have access and opportunity the same way everybody else does, in every institution and walk of life,” he said.

I debated it, too. Certainly some boys and adult leaders would find a change difficult — against their way of life. Yet the more I began to consider some of the adjustments they might have to make, the more I remembered my own years in Scouting and how the culture was challenged by my participation, as well as that of other Jewish Boy Scouts, in a very Christian Orange County.

In some respects, we were trailblazers for change.

There were six or seven of us in a troop of about 60 boys, and for many of my fellow Scouts it was the first   

time they had met a Jewish kid. I soon found that they were curious about Jewish holidays and customs and even what it meant to have a bar mitzvah.

We discovered that while a Scout is “Reverent” — one of the tenets of the Scout Law — there are many different forms and beliefs to which this reverence can be directed.

My fellow Scouts also saw that we had a different outlook on certain things, like eating bacon, a staple on camping trips. But they could also see we had a lot in common — we, too, didn’t like hearing the bugle blow early in the morning, taking long hikes or having adults bark orders at us.

Having Jewish kids in the mix also meant there had to be a change in Scouting culture. In particular, during larger camping events called Jamborees, all boys were required to attend chapel services on Sunday mornings. Usually led by a minister, the services invariably ended with the words, “In the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ.”

Did the minister not know there were some “other” believers out there?

After one service, I remember my voice cracking as I spoke to a Jewish Scout leader — since there were now Jewish boys, there were also Jewish dads — and asked how the ending of the service could be changed.

Eventually, those leading the service got the news and changed the closing to “God or Lord.”

The change was just a couple of words, but it indicated an important conceptual change and a cultural shift in our region. Looking back on it today, I see the change as an acknowledgment that there was enough room in the tent — that Jewish and Christian boys could be in Scouting together. It was an experience that helped to prepare me for the future.

When straight and gay young men go off to college, the armed services, the world of work, they are bound to meet. In a dorm, on a factory floor or on a battlefield, they may need to understand and depend on each other. It’s time for Scouting to stand up and help them to be prepared.

Edmon J. Rodman
is a columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. For more Rodman, visit his “Guide for the Jewplexed” blog at www.virtualjerusalem.com.

Edmon Rodman
Edmon J. Rodman

Edmon J. Rodman writes about Jewish life from his home in Los Angeles and is the author of the weekly Guide for the Jewplexed on virtualjerusalem.com. Contact him at [email protected].